The Big Kahuna looks like a filmed play (it is actually based on a play). There are only three characters, and the whole story takes place in one setting.
In addition, It’s a very talky movie, heavy on dialogue and light on action. That’s usually a criticism for such a visual medium as film, but good movies have been made that look like filmed plays (Glengarry Glenn Ross and Deathtrap come to mind).
Dialogue and Actors
The Big Kahuna has well-paced dialogue and good actors who get deep into their characters. These are exactly the traits that can make a stagey, talky play work on film.
Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito are two experienced salesmen at a convention, hoping to land a deal with “The Big Kahuna” from a manufacturing company. A third character, played by Peter Facinelli, is a young man at his first convention, here to represent the engineering department of the threesome’s company.
Well Developed Characters
The three characters are very well developed and well acted.
Spacey is Larry, the extroverted, talkative guy who can always keep a conversation alive. He always knows how to make a joke by mixing a dash of sarcasm with a pinch of hyperbole. When he’s not making a joke, he’s honest — sometimes brutally, sometimes nobly (as DeVito points out at the end).
Phil (DeVito) was once the equal of Larry. We know this about him from the dialogue and from the way Larry defers to him, but now Phil is depressed and tired. He has the knowledge and experience to be a salesman, but he no longer has the passion, the drive, or the urgency to make him good at it.
Facinelli is Bob, who is shy and straight-laced. He’s recently married, a Baptist, and a little evangelical. He’s naive and optimistic, and he hasn’t a touch of cynicism in him. He’s adopted as a protege of the two more weathered salesmen because he’s not a threat.
Interactions and Permutations
The characters are different enough that interactions between and among them have lots of potential. With Phil gone, Larry is more blunt with Bob. Without Bob, Phil can open up to Larry, and so on. Every permutation is tried as each of the three leaves the room for a scene or two. Each character gets to take center stage, and each combination of personalities is hashed out on screen.
The topics of discussion range from funny to spiritual, from shallow to deep. The dialogue is always driven by the characters, and it never seems forced. (Roger Rueff, who wrote the original play, also wrote the screenplay.)
As you might imagine in a filmed play, some spots are a little slow, a little dry. For example, there is a scene of heightened emotional importance as Phil (DeVito) bares his soul to Larry (Spacey). That scene needed additional visual weight, but even with some music and a slow zoom in on DeVito’s face, the scene didn’t work. The pace of the movie faltered.
But The Big Kahuna doesn’t have many of these dry spells. In fact, the scene I mentioned is the only one that comes to mind. All in all, The Big Kahuna is well made, well acted, and well written.
Granted, even the best filmed play is not for all tastes. Some people are automatically bored by a movie that’s all talk. But for the rest of us, The Big Kahuna is a great showcase for some very good acting.